Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#19: Philip Jose Farmer

When readers won't be satisfied with the number of books or stories that their favorite authors have placed in their universes, fan fiction results. Sometimes it's not that the readers can't get enough, so much as that they feel that the author got it wrong. Sometimes fan fiction results from the desire to mix and match favorite characters -- to have Dr. Who appear on the Enterprise, for instance. Philip Jose Farmer has made a career out of writing fan fiction professionally.

Some of Farmer's books -- some good ones, too -- are placed in his own home-made universes, but he's never so at home as when he's playing in someone else's sandbox. And even when the only universe he's playing in is his own, he still overlooks no opportunity to mix and match. He does it well, with a quirky combination of absurd premise and careful attention to realistic detail. Philip Jose Farmer has been writing since the early fifties, but I'd place his best work in the seventies. Among his books:

"To Your Scattered Bodies Go" (****) is placed on the ultimate mix-and-match stage -- though the actors are drawn from history, not fiction: a literal afterlife. The place is the Riverworld, a possibly artificial world with an impossibly long river snaking over it. Along this river, everyone whoever lived, from primitives to people slightly in our future, is resurrected simultaneously. Necessities are provided, by what might as well be magic, and humanity is left to work out its second chance. The hero of the story is Sir Richard Francis Burton, the explorer who is best remembered today for his translation of the Arabian Nights. With numerous other familiar names from all of history, he sets out to discover the secrets behind the Riverworld -- its reason for being.

It turns out to be a long search: The sequel to "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" is "The Fabulous Riverboat" (***+), in which Burton, Samuel Clemens, and others construct a high-tech riverboat and use it to explore the River to its source. The series proceeds to go downhill after that. "The Dark Design" (**) and "The Magic Labyrinth" (**) drag, and "Gods of the Riverworld" (*) is actively bad. But "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" stands on its own -- Farmer concentrates on telling a good story, rather than on mixing and matching favorite historical characters -- and it's worth reading even if you give the sequels a miss.

"Time's Last Gift" (***+) is an extrapolation from the Tarzan novels. In the not-too-distant future, a time-travel expedition sets out for prehistoric Europe. (The nature of time travel is such that this is the only such expedition there'll ever be.) The leader of the expedition, a man with extraordinary talents, turns out to be surprisingly at home in this world of the past. Readers familiar with the Tarzan novels will recognize the man. For readers who aren't familiar with those books, I'd revise the rating to (**).

The great pulps are Farmer's favorite playgrounds. Some of his books are set within an elaborately contrived 'history' in which half the heroes of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century adventure fiction are relatives, and interact. (Readers attracted by this notion are directed to "Greatheart Silver" (*+).) "A Feast Unknown" (**+) links Tarzan and Doc Savage (not called by those names) to a secret organization that has ruled the world for tens of thousands of years. It is continued in "Lord of the Trees" (**+) and "The Mad Goblin" (**). Again, if you're familiar with Tarzan and Doc Savage, you're more likely to enjoy the homages. If not, I'm afraid the main drawing card is painful sex.

"The Other Log of Phileas Fogg" (***) is a retelling of "Around the World in Eighty Days", in which we learn that Verne's story was merely a cover for the *real* story, which involved a struggle between competing alien factions. If you haven't read the original, drop the rating to (**).

Farmer's other major series is his "World of Tiers" series, consisting of "The Maker of Universes", "The Gates of Creation", "A Private Cosmos", "Behind the Walls of Terra", "The Lavalite World", and now, "More than Fire". So far. It's a very Farmerish milieu -- paranoid and clever -- in which a number of immortals (heirs to god-like technology, and highly suspicious of each other) rule private, made-to-order universes, and intrigue against each other. (One of them is the behind-the-scenes ruler of Earth.) I'd rate them all in the ** to **+ range: They're essentially adventure fiction with clever props, but if you see one in a used book store, you could do worse than to give it a try.

Farmer wrote more novels than I can reasonably begin to discuss. Honorable mentions go to "The Wind Whales of Ishmael" (**+) and "Night of Light" (***). And Vonnegut fans won't want to miss "Venus on the Half Shell" (**), "by Kilgore Trout". I'd give his relatively recent 'Dayworld' trilogy (*+) a miss, though.

The short shrift I've given most of Farmer's work might have given an unbalanced picture of his writing. He's written numerous books, and I've enjoyed most of them -- but not necessarily to the point of tugging on readers' sleeves and urging them to read them. (He's also written a good number of works which are 'historically important', but in many or most cases, this means an unusual-twenty-years-ago use of sex embedded within an otherwise uninspired story or novel.) I may just be the wrong person to be reviewing Farmer, as his greatest critical successes (eg, "Riders of the Purple Wage" (*+ -- and not to be confused with similar titles)) have tended to leave me cold.

So I recommend "To Your Scattered Bodies Go", which *was* fun to read -- and if you read that, you'll know whether you want to hunt down sequels. Fans of Tarzan, Doc Savage, Oz, Holmes, or the writing of Vonnegut or Verne, may enjoy what he's done with that raw material. (Frankly, I'd avoid "A Barnstormer in Oz" (*).) And if you find that you like his style, he's written plenty more books, most of which are fairly easy to track down.

Dani Zweig